The New York Times editorial department’s Op-Doc section—a film equivalent of the Op-Ed, which began in 2011—invites short documentaries with a point of view. It features interactive and VR videos, and the variety of subjects is rich, ranging from a dead dad’s hidden porno tapes to an island nation’s plans to build a futuristic, half-submerged city in the face of rising water levels in the oceans. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s film, the latest entry and the first from India, is about the Mughalwali village in Haryana, where people believe that the mythical river Saraswati has been reborn in their land.
One of them is the farmer, Sahiram Kashyap, who has camped next to one of the excavated sites, and is sometimes seen talking to the pool of water in the manner of a devotee. He says he’s had a vision of the Goddess herself—the manifestation of the river. There’s Gopal Das, the priest, who has arrived at the scene sensing a business opportunity. At one point, he quotes Donald Trump, and in another, cites the doomed fate of astronaut Kalpana Chawla as an example of what happens when one questions god.
Not everyone in the village has bought the hype. Amid the madness is Jarnail Singh, a farmer, whose skepticism comes as a relief. There’s the RTI activist whose enquiries to the Government regarding the veracity of the ‘discovery’ in Mughalwali have gone in vain. Or the woman from the village who, during one of the discussions, asks “How is it a river, if it doesn’t flow?”
The events unfold during the Saraswati Mahotsav, the annual seven-day festival, started by the Haryana government. It puts the events in this small village in the larger context of the rise of the Hindu nationalistic politics in India. Abraham and Madheshiya, who made The Cinema Travellers, the multiple award-winning documentary about the last days of the tent cinemas of rural Maharashtra, filmed Searching for Saraswati, over three weeks, in February, 2017. It was commissioned as one of the five films supported by an exclusive Sundance Institute-MacArthur Foundation Short Film Fellowship, to explore “contemporary issues by distinctive new voices” around the world.
In October 2015, when the Haryana Government, based on the findings of a committee it had constituted, announced that the Saraswati river was real, Abraham and Madheshiya discerned a story that was “representative of the kind of narrative we were hearing” since the BJP Government came to power. Highlighted by alarming—and admittedly amusing—statements made by members of the ruling party that such modern technological and scientific inventions as the internet and the concepts of Quantum mechanics in fact existed in ancient India. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing a group of doctors during inauguration of a hospital, took the example of the elephant-headed god Ganesh and suggested that plastic surgery must have existed in India thousands of years ago.
The agenda is clear, says Abraham: To “root us into a monoculture idea of India, to establish it as a country of and by Hindus, and that it is the ideal shape of this country.”
Madheshiya, speaking on the phone from Amsterdam, mentions a Reuters report about a committee, quietly formed by the government in 2017, which has been assigned the task to “prove that Hindu scriptures are factual accounts”, and rewrite the history of India. The agenda is clear, says Abraham: To “root us into a monoculture idea of India, to establish it as a country of and by Hindus, and that it is the ideal shape of this country.” In 2015, the Haryana Saraswati Heritage Development Board was formed. More than Rs 500 million is being spent on the revival of the Saraswati; the idea is to “improve the state’s water conditions” and promote religious tourism by replicating the course of the lost river.
Unlike Saraswati, the film flows, over 20 brisk minutes, the filmmakers never losing their grip over the fact that their medium is, ultimately, a thing of sound and images. It finds, as Abraham puts it, “metaphors and visual codes that carry meaning beyond a set of information” to tell the story. The camera wryly observes a strange parade, that include girls dressed up as the Goddess, walking across a farmland. A matador, with ‘Saraswati in Rig Veda’ written on a banner, passes by, revealing a closed Science Museum in the background as school children return home. When men discuss the ‘healing powers’ of the river water as they sit circled around the dug-up site, we zoom in on a frog in the well.
Thick fog hangs over the stark, wintry landscape in almost every exterior wide-angle shot. The fog is omnipresent in Searching for Saraswati, right from the atmospheric opening scene, where we drive into a dark highway through a forest (juxtaposed with Hindi anchor cheerfully announcing the news of the discovery of the Saraswati); it obscures everything except the outline of trees, hues of twilight blue, and the faint glow of the headlight. Madheshiya likens the feeling to that of William of Baskerville’s arrival at the abbey on a foggy morning, to investigate the suspicious death of a monk, in Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”. “It’s like being in a place of diffused subjectivity…that what you see is probably not what it is,” he says.
Watch the film here: